Seychelles marine conservation plan hits the headlines

A little land, a lot of water. The water and its contents are not infinite resources and must be treated with respect

“The Guardian” on 22 February highlighted a proposal to create 15 % of Seychelles’ Economic Exclusion Zone as protected areas, aimed at conserving the rich biota that are subject to a variety of threats, including over-fishing and its associated by-catch, mineral extraction and climate change. Funding for the plan has been facilitated by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international NGO that has bought (at a discount) a substantial part of Seychelles’ national debt to European countries in return for protecting huge areas of the ocean under its jurisdiction.

The island nation of Seychelles has a land area of about 460 km2, which represents only 0.03% of its 1,374,000 km2 oceanic Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Most of the human population lives on the granitic group of islands, towards the northern extremity of the EEZ. The two protected areas include 134,000 km2 around the northern, mostly inhabited, islands and 74,000 km2 around the Aldabra group of atolls and raised coral islands in the far south-west.

The former area will allow some “controlled” activities but bans others, of which Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs) are highlighted. FADs are floating structures, made of plastic buoys, netting and timber etc. (see blog “Our plastic oceans” of 13 June 2017), that attract concentrations of fish (and other marine life) that are targeted by commercial fisheries. These devices can entrap non-target animals, such as turtles, and fishing based on netting around the devices includes by-catch of turtles, sharks, dolphins and other protected wildlife.

The southern protected area around Aldabra bans all extractive activities, including fishing and oil exploration. The remoteness of this area, however, presents logistical problems in enforcing protection. Recent statements infer that the proposed establishment of an Indian military base on Assumption Island, 27 km south-east Aldabra, will help with policing and enforcement of the protected area and its prohibitions. This may be the case but an article in the Irish Times of 30 January claims that India’s desire for a base on the island goes deeper – they would like a base to counter what they see as Chinese power-seeking in the Indian Ocean!

With regard to the protected area around the northern granitic islands, certain “controlled” extractive activities are to be allowed. It seems that one of these is exploration for and possible extraction of oil, this at a time when there are global moves to reduce our dependence on carbon-based energy sources. According to the Telegraph on 21 February, exploration is to include seismic surveys. These involve beaming intense low-frequency acoustic signals from the sea surface into the underlying rocks. A recent study (Nature Ecology & Evolution, volume 1, article No. 0195, 2017, doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0195) has shown that this technique kills zooplankton up to at least 1.2 km from the signal source. As a fundamental part of the food chain for fish and seabirds, even a temporary loss of zooplankton over the Seychelles Bank could have a significant environmental impact on wildlife and artisanal fisheries.

Protecting Seychelles’ marine resources will clearly not be straightforward given the vast scale of the country’s oceanic realm. But the establishment of these protected areas, and ensuring that current and future threats are minimised, represents a major step for the nation. Furthermore, the mechanism for funding the process could be an important model for others to follow at a time when man’s many negative impacts on our oceans, and their influences on food chains (including those topped by man), climate and physical structures of the islands, are coming under increasing, and badly needed, scrutiny.

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